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Bookends: Ferguson presents a timely novel about the evils of spam scams December 29, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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419-a novel

By Dan Davidson

March 13, 2013

– 907 words –


419: A Novel

Will Ferguson

Penguin Canada

432 pages



It begins like this:

Dear Friend,

I know that this message will come to you as a surprise. I am the Auditing and Accounting section manager with African Development Bank, Ouagadougou Burkina faso. I hope that you will not expose or betray this trust and confident that I am about to repose on you for the mutual benefit of our both families.

The writer may be a dying widow, the daughter of disgraced official, or a member of the US military, but the deal is that they have access to an impossibly large sum of money and they need your help to move it around the world. For allowing them to launder that money through your bank account they will provide you with a healthy percentage of the total. It is really their money; you’re only helping them get around some unjust laws.

The most common missives used to appear to come from Nigeria, but lately they claim to originate from the Congo, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Burkina Faso, two countries to the east of Nigeria.

The generic term for all of these email frauds is the 419 Scam, the name based on the section of Nigerian Law that outlaws them. The one I’ve quoted is from my own Hotmail junk file.

The one that triggers the events in Will Ferguson’s latest novel (and winner of last year’s Giller Prize) fools Laura’s father in bankrupting the family and leaves him so emotionally crippled that he commits suicide, which is where this story begins.

Part of this story, told somewhat out of order, is the story of how Laura figures out what happened to her dad, plays the game in reverse and goes to Nigeria to collect on the debt that she figures some evil person really owes her and her family. It all works out rather differently than she planned.

That story would be a simple thriller, but Ferguson wasn’t satisfied doing that. Instead there are three other central characters whose lives we follow, and whose motivations we come to understand and sympathize with.

One of them, daringly enough, is Winston, the Nigerian who set the trap for Laura’s dad and precipitated his downfall. Winston lives in Lagos, was brought up to know better than what he is doing, but does it anyway in a land of limited opportunities. We see Winston freelancing in the coffee shops and watch as he is scooped up by Ironsi-Egobia, a local crime lord, and forced to become part of his organization.

Our second African character is a nameless pregnant young woman who eventually acquires the name Amina. She is on foot, on the run from something or someone that is never clearly defined.

She gets a name after she meets Nnamdi, the young man whose story actually gets the most space in the book. He would have been happy to live a fisherman’s life amid the bayous and delta creeks near the coast, but the coast is rich in oil, and companies have moved in, drilling wells, filling the air with the smell of sour gas, destroying the fishery, and driving the young men into various crimes involving the theft and resale of oil and gas.

Nnamdi follows this path and, after gaining some skills as a mechanic, moves to the city and falls in with a outfit smuggling oil in big tanker trucks.

We accompany him and his driver on one trip to the north, a trip rife with bribes and minor crises. One their way back south their path intersects with that of Amina, and so these two stories are combined and a pair of lives entwine.

Laura’s story is a bit harder to follow, since we actually begin with her arrival in Lagos and then, in the narrative style so much in fashion on TV these days, back up to find out what led her to get on that plane and take that journey.

Both Winston’s and Laura’s stories are further interrupted by the record of the email exchanges that led to the tragedy in the first place.

You may have figured out by now that I found the novel a tad disjointed in the way that things were presented. It does all come clear after a while, but it takes its time getting there.

In terms of structure, the book is broken into four major sections (Snow, Sand, Fuel and Fire), which are further divided in 129 numbered scenes of varying lengths. E-books have the disadvantage of not letting it be clear to a reader just where you are in a book or how long sections are. It turns out the sections are roughly equal in length.

Each of the four characters has an ending of sorts, some good, some not so good, one really bad. Getting to the end, without telling you how it turned out, I would have to say that while I was quite aware of why Laura handled it the way she did, I felt as if the book didn’t build up to that as well as I would have liked.

Still, it was a worthwhile read; it held my interest all the way through, and it’s a very timely piece of work.

Just ask my correspondent from Burkina Faso.






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